The History of Cougar Hot Springs
The Hot Springs at Cougar Reservoir have been in use for centuries. Native American tribes visited on their annual migrations to and from the Oregon coast. They came from interior Oregon, east of the Cascades mountain range. Settlers started using the Springs in the late 1800's after they were discovered one day by a man named Terwilliger who was hiking with his family and the Belknap family.
The Springs remained remote throughout the early part of this century. One Friend of Cougar has been visiting for more than 60 years. In the 1940s people would ride on horse back from what is now Finn Rock. Terwilliger deeded the Hot Springs property to the Forest Service. In 1960, the FS 19 road was built as part of the Cougar Dam project of the Army Corps of Engineers. Because of its proximity to Cougar Reservoir, the Springs became popularly known as "Cougar," rather than Terwilliger. Besides bears, elk and deer, cougars are one of the larger animals that roam in this near-wilderness area. The dam replaced a beautiful 167-foot waterfall.
From the 1960s use gradually increased. In the 1970s one still had to cross many fallen trees and the trail was little more than a deer path from FS 19. People began living near the Springs in great numbers, especially in the summer months. There were hundreds of people living in the immediate 1/4 mile area at one time. Everyone lived in harmony, and the Forest Service was never seen. No citations were written. Everyone went nude. There were hundreds of bathers on any given day. The surrounding hillsides at the Springs eroded, stripped of vegetation by foot traffic. When people were forbidden from camping in the immediate area, the ferns were replanted, and signs posted to keep people off the fragile slopes. Two outhouses were constructed in the 1980s.
Because of night partiers leaving behind so much litter, a night-closure policy was begun in 1989.
In the early 90s, some visitors drank at the Hot Springs and a few became loud and obnoxious. In May, 1995, alcohol was banned from the area.
Popularity increased, and in the summer of 1997 when the Rainbow Gathering was held nearby, use so high that the Forest Service became increasingly alarmed by the difficulty managing public use. The Forest Service reported that a few people were blocking traffic, disrespecting their authority, leaving behind litter at campsites, dealing drugs (mushrooms, LSD, marijuana). Loitering and panhandling by hippy/rainbows was common at the Harbick's Country Store and the rate of shoplifting was high. Many customers were wary of stopping at the store and business was depressed. Other businesses, such as Christmas Treasures also grew tired of the hippies coming in constantly asking for directions or money. Reacting to "spanging" ("spare change?" / Panhandling) was a daily annoyance for many locals.
The Forest Service didn't recognize the social good in the Cougar area. Rainbow kids from all across America came and lived for days, weeks or even months in the free surrounding forest camps. They learned to live in community. They grew and enjoyed the healing waters of the Springs every day. Living free in nature. The local business community complained about hippies/transients.
The Cougar area was akin to a year-round Rainbow Gathering. There was a spirit of cooperation and love. For these kids it was a remarkable contrast to the isolation from their peers that they felt in the cities and often abusive families from which they came.
Another concern for the Forest Service, visitors to Cougar and the community had was the increasing crime that accompanied the increase in traffic to the area. At the time 40,000 people were visiting Cougar and camping in the area each year. There were some tragic crimes that occurred in 1996-1997.
Largely because of these crimes, high levels of use, and local insistence, the Forest Service decided that the best solution was to start charging a fee to camp and to use the hot springs. The fee program began in June 1998. The FS exagerated the amount of litter in the campsites in a pamphlet they published to gain sympathy for the changes from visitors, closed some of the better camping areas and started charging fees. The program was experimental for the summer. Enforcement was strict. Many users boycotted the Springs and by word of mouth the traditional "hippie" users stayed away in droves. For the summer, a local merchant reported shoplifting dropped dramatically, and generally local businesses, and the Forest Service in September '98 declared the experiment a huge success.
Next, the FS in September 1998, decided they would ban nudity. The Friends of Cougar alerted the public. We met with the Forest Service on numerous occasions, wrote letters and made phone calls. At the decisive December 1998 meeting we argued our case passionately. At that meeting, we convinced the District Ranger of the benefits of having nude use at Cougar and she announced the FS would allow nudity to continue.
Support for nudity continues to this day, and Hoodoo has repeatedly said they have no intention of changing the clothing-optional policy.
Today Cougar Hot Springs is more peaceful because there is better cooperation between visitors, the Friends of Cougar, Hoodoo and the Forest Service. It's incredibly beautiful, wonderfully soothing in its waters, and filled with friendly people. It is truly one of the World's best hot spring experiences.